Is Ha Long Bay overrated? That’s the question we needed to answer before including Hanoi in our Vietnam trip. After some preliminary reading, I realised: there’d be no way we’d escape taking a tour or crowds. But all the reviews said it was definitely worth it. And I’d second that. Ha Long Bay doesn’t disappoint and even if you have two days in Hanoi — make sure you block one day to explore this fascinating marvel of nature.
Our tour bus for Ha Lang Bay picked us at 8 am from our hotel. The next 20 minutes were spent picking our co-travellers and navigating through the arterial roads of Hanoi. I was hoping to catch some shut eye on the bus ride. Our guide, a chirpy Vietnamese woman, didn’t waste time in rolling out the words or information. Interestingly, her views on Vietnamese history and the war was noticeably different from her counterpart from the south. I guess, history also depends on which side of the line you’re from.
A part of me, didn’t want to hear about the war again, and stir the memory of the horrifying visuals — that I’d seen at the War Remnants Museum in Saigon. But it’s hard to escape the memory of war or its effects in Vietnam. For a country that’s shaped from shrapnel — tour guides don’t shy from belting out the grim stories of war — some personal and some passed from one generation to another. It might seem like swallowing a bitter pill on a holiday. Like most bitter pills, once the aftertaste wears off — we can only hope to be cured from the mistakes of the past.
We made a pit stop for a restroom/refreshment break on the way. The adjoining centre employs survivors/victims of the war. It’s fascinating to look at the effort that goes into each creation. Some works take months to complete. Ginormous embroidered works adorn the gallery walls and whitewashed sculptures line the outer perimeter of the centre. You can also buy jewellery or authentic Vietnamese coffee here.
It took us about 4 or 5 hours to reach the port. Our guide rushed to get tickets while the rest of us huddled together. The waiting area was buzzing with eager tourists and it’s best to stay with your group. We were then herded together and lead to the boat. The engine whirred and we drifted away from the chaos around. Basil and I were seated with a young couple from Greece and a business traveller from Lithuania. After the customary awkward smile, we finally started talking and exchanging notes on Vietnam over lunch.
As we sailed further into the bay, from clear waters — emerged towering mountains of limestone. These lifeless landforms stood frozen in silence as boats honked and sputtered smoke on the emerald waters. Occasionally, the towering Karst landforms cast shadows on the water below and appeared to cut the grey skies above. Everyone was excited on the deck and a picture clicking frenzy followed. I wished for silence, for the chatter to die down, and a moment to soak in the eerie beauty of this gorgeous seascape.
Ha Long Bay translates as “The Bay of Descending Dragons”. According to local legend, the Jade Emperor sent a mother dragon and her children to protect Vietnam — from the invaders of the north. The emeralds from the dragons mouth, formed a wall, that splintered into the towering islands. Some historical records state that a French sub-lieutenant actually spotted a dragon like life form (believed to be a sea snake) in the bay in 1898. In a bitter twist of sorts, if dragons did actually exist like the legend, the country probably wouldn’t have had to go through its torrid affair with war and peace.
I’ve never quite understood our obsession for dragons or sea monsters (or even aliens). This obsession seems to transcend geographical boundaries. Is it the fear of what lies beneath or the unknown that gives rise to such legends? Or does our imagination get the better of us? Or is it too good to be true, that a seascape so surreal, could lie in absolute silence — without a ginormous monster to guard it from predators like us?
Speaking of ginormous beasts, a portion of the movie “Kong: Skull Island” was shot here. Our guide eagerly pointed out to an island (I was too lost in my thoughts to pay attention) from the movie. Come to think of it, size has little to do with strength or destruction. Or we wouldn’t driven other species to extinction or set on a crusade to destroy our planet.
About 1600 or more islands and islets lie within the Bay. It took millions of years for these towering landforms to be shaped by the elements. Not surprisingly, Ha Long Bay has found itself in the New 7 Natural Wonders of the World List, in addition to being recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
We slowly inched our way into the sea caving area. To explore the sea caves, you can either choose to kayak or take a relaxing bamboo boat ride. If you’re up for a shoulder and arm workout — I’d suggest kayaking. It’s not easy clicking pictures on a kayak with dripping/splashing water and manoeuvring through narrow channels. So if you’re looking for good photographs — opt for the bamboo boat instead.
By afternoon, the sun had come out of hiding and the humidity levels had spiked. If it got any hotter, I honestly thought my brain would melt. There was chaos all around as other tourists arrived at the pier. Our guide explained the route we’d have to follow. Before I could make sense of it, we were rushed to the waiting line. Basil and I were the last to get into the kayak and that just added more pressure on us. It was also our first kayaking experience and I think it’s not the best place to learn — if you’re with your directionally challenged husband. It took us 10 minutes (with the help of our nervous guide) to get our movements in sync.
The ride wasn’t exactly smooth with bamboo boats clogging the entry way to the caves. There was a lot of bumping (into other boats and the edge of the cave) and we finally got a hang of it by the second cave. The water was dirty and it didn’t feel great to have it splash on my face. By the time we reached the third cave — I had mastered the art of kayaking. I felt tired and invincible and strangely — I had forgotten how petrified I am of water. A young girl, on a bamboo boat, asked me if it was tiring. At that time, I found that question a little odd. It was only after I looked at our pictures that I realised, Basil had stopped rowing to click pictures.
We finally made it to the pier and our guide was happy to see us alive. Next up, was a trip to the caves. It’s quite a steep climb to the entry point of the cave. Once again, it’s good to stick with your tour group. I’m sure it won’t be a pleasant experience getting lost in the maze of coloured rock inside.
Thien Cung Grotto, which translates as the ‘Heavenly Cave’, is a blank canvas to set your imagination free. Stalactites and stalagmites, plunging from the rooftop, give this eerily lit cave — a story of its own. Light plays tricks on your eyes and creates shapes from limp rocks that cut across the cave.
It’s not very difficult to understand why this cave is a rich pool for storytelling and folklore. Take a look around and you’d make a story of your own. I tried hard, even strained my eyes, to trace out the shapes of mythical animals or magical humans shown by our guide. Honestly, I saw what I wanted to see: nature weathering stone and natural light percolating even the narrowest orifice.
I wouldn’t want to get lost here. I’m sure, it wouldn’t be easy to navigate through this cavernous space engulfed by rugged rock formation. Looking at the circuitous routes and hidden nooks, I too would want to believe that this could have been the mother dragon’s lair. I could bet on it.
The exit of the cave leads you to an observation point. The view from here is stunning and is great for taking panorama pictures.
Tired and sapped by the heat, we finally made it back to the boat. Just when I wanted to take a break, our guide brought in the artillery for a Vietnamese cooking lesson. I’m a strong believer in gender equality and fortunately Basil happens to be good cook. It was a good way to end our day with something light. We traced the same route back to Hanoi. By the time we reached the city, the street lights were on and I was ready to sink into the bed.